It was a great opportunity to talk to this top performing athlete, the winner of two Olympic gold medals with 26 world records and a man who has proven his skill in the 1,500, 3,000, 5,000, 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000 meters as well as of course the marathon. Only 35 years old, he still aims for new records. Just a month ago he broke the world record in the Berlin Marathon. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he intends to run in next year’s Eurasia Marathon.
We met in Sultanahmet and obtained permission for unrestricted access to every part of the Sultanahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque). We then rushed to a teahouse. He admired the teahouse’s interior, decorated with Turkish rugs and ceramics. Before proceeding with the interview, we offered him tea or Turkish coffee. He insisted on tea.
Can you tell us a little about your family and your childhood?
I have nine siblings -- eight older than me and one younger. I worked in the fields until turning 14, all the while attending school. The school was 10 kilometers from home and it was in these years that I began to run. I ran to school and ran back, with my sole fear being the cars that were on the road.
What does a child in Ethiopia dream of being when he or she grows up?
Every child in my village had his or her sight set on becoming a runner. Some wanted to pursue higher education.
Some say you cannot extend your left arm completely because of all the books you carried. Is this true?
Yes. I had to run for 10 kilometers to get to school and had to pay attention to not dropping the books, so I would always squeeze them with my arms. This has had a great effect on my current running style. I cannot extend my left arm fully while running.
When did you get your first running shoes?
While in high school. Before that, I got my first normal shoes at the age of 13. Until then, I walked and ran barefoot. There were times when I was in much pain. But everyone in my village was barefoot. In time, you can get used to it.
How were your parents able to take care of 10 children? What was your house like?
We had a small, wooden straw house. It had only one big room and the entire family lived in that room. One kid in one corner and another in another corner. The kitchen, too, was in this room. My parents were peasants. We helped them out. We also owned cows and horses.
Who first discovered your skills?
My teacher while I was in high school.
Did you think at the time that you would be an athlete?
Yes, I did. Like every child, I wanted to become a good runner and always imagined myself as a great athlete. When I was 14, I ran in a school contest and won first place in the 1,500-meter event.
How do you prepare for runs?
I train twice every day before any race. The morning run is critical and usually lasts for about three hours. This is the most important form of training for me. Other than that, I engage in gymnastics for about an hour. Before the race, I eat food rich in carbohydrates, such as macaroni -- but not excessively. I then take a warm shower and get a massage. To distract my mind, I listen to music. I go to bed early and I don’t leave out preparing spiritually as well.
What did you eat when you were a child?
There was no special food. We ate whatever we could find, but I can say that we mostly ate corn.
Again, I have no special diet. I eat every type of food.
You hold 26 world records. Which of them is most special to you?
The record I broke in the last Berlin Marathon. There, I improved my own record. But I am determined to improve it further. I can assure you that I will break another record in the marathon to be held in London (The London Marathon will be held in April).
Will you attend the 2012 London Olympics?
Of course. I am still very young. (Pointing to his translator) He’s the old one here!
The world athletics community admires you. Who do you admire?
Abebe Bikila and Emil Zatopek. (Bikila, an Ethiopian marathon runner, won a gold medal in the Rome and Tokyo Olympics in 1960 and 1964, respectively. He ran barefoot in both races. Czech athlete Zatopek came in first in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter and the marathon in eight days at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.)
Do you think there will be athletes as successful as you are?
Yes, there will be many.
If you were an athletics critic, how would you describe yourself?
(Smiling) An interesting question. I am shy. It is difficult for me to describe myself. Perhaps, I would say, “He wants to be the best.”
I want to become a prime minister
Will you quit the track one day?
I will run until I die.
The race is about to start and you are on the start line. What do you feel when you hear the gunshot?
Well... the beginning of a war. I feel like I am at war and that I have to win it.
Can you hear the cheering spectators?
Yes, of course... I must show them a good race.
We heard that you were thinking about a political career in the future. What sort of a politician will you become?
I want to become a prime minister so that I can work to better the conditions of my people. Poverty is the biggest problem of my country and I must do my part in the fight against this problem.I want to run in the next Eurasia Marathon
She will make a very goof athlete in the future.
What do think about her running on behalf of Turkey?
This is her choice. She wants to run on behalf of Turkey and she has shown that she can do this successfully.
Have you received any offer to run for any other country?
Why did you not accept them?
I am glad to run on behalf of my own country.
Let us finish this interview by asking about the purposes of your visit. How did you find İstanbul?
It is a beautiful city. As you can see, Sultanahmet is magical.
Will you attend next year’s Eurasia Marathon?
I will do my best to be here. The Eurasia Marathon is the only marathon that connects two continents. I learned that many athletes from my country won medals here. I would like to add this marathon to my collection of medals.